A few years ago, When Dr. Richard Cytowic was working on his book Synesthesia (MIT Press, 2017) he reached out to individuals with grapheme->color via the Synesthesia List to inquire about synesthetic perceptions of typeface fonts. I have long followed the Synesthesia List, as the community connected via Dr. Sean A. Day’s listserve is both welcoming and highly collaborative. When I read that post, I reached out to Dr. Cytowic to share my perception of fonts. I told Richard that I love Avenir, and also Avenir Next. I love them like I love cold slices of watermelon on late spring days, and similar to my fondness for the round gray sounds of the oboe. Avenir is for me. I am honored that Dr. Cytowic included my colored graphemes in his book, which you can order here.
I never thought much about fonts until I was working on my Master of Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco. At that time, I had a writing instructor who specifically requested that our assignments be submitted in Courier. Lewis Buzbee explained that each grapheme in the Courier font takes up the same amount of linear and vertical space, and that for people who read multiple submissions each day, the Courier font is easiest on the eyes. Lewis is a writer of exceptional skill; his request for Courier made sense. For the duration of my studies at USF, I submitted my work in Courier, unless another instructor specifically asked for a different font.
Yet, my trouble with Courier and other serif fonts is highly specific. The ornamentation of serif fonts such Times New Roman, Courier, and Georgia is highly distracting for me. The addition of serifs…small lines or strokes attached to the ends of a larger strokes in a letter… places my focus on the intensity of the grapheme’s colors. The extra bulk of the font makes each grapheme bolder and brighter. This is where I start losing track of the meaning of a word, and begin focusing more on the color.
For example, the brand name “Advil“ is super bright starstruck aquamarine blue for me. But the drug “ibuprofen”is white in color by that name, at least in my synesthetic perceptions. I’ve gone to my medicine chest and stood there bewildered as I parse the bright blue word “Advil” for a drug whose branding uses super saturated yellow serif letters on a medium blue box for tablets that are ultimately ruddy brown for a drug name that is white. It’s a bit of a mindfuck.
When Adrian Frutiger created Avenir, his goal was to develop a more organic interpretation of the geometric style. I think he hit this mark, that Avenir represents a balanced, aesthetically pleasing typeface. Companies that are currently using Avenir include Apple for their Apple Maps app and also for Siri; the city of Amsterdam, which uses Avenir in all of their branding; and Bloomberg News, who uses a custom version of the Avenir Next font. I believe there is an appealing quality to Avenir that resonates with a broader visual aesthetic, even for people without neurodiverent tendencies. With my own writing, I always draft text in Avenir, even if I ultimately submit my essays and poems in Times New Roman or another serif font.
For me, I find a deep resonance with Adrian Frutiger’s musings on his Avenir font. Of it, he noted “the quality of the draftsmanship – rather than the intellectual idea behind it – is my masterpiece. It was the hardest typeface I have worked on in my life. Working on it, I always had human nature in mind. And what’s crucial is that I developed the typeface alone, in peace and quiet – no drafting assistants, no-one was there. My personality is stamped upon it. I’m proud that I was able to create Avenir”.
Thank you Adrian Frutiger. I love Avenir’s humanity as much as I love being alone to create. Your font is is streamlined and balanced in shape, aesthetically pleasing while eliminating the visual dissonance of serifs. I salute you!